Saturday, November 20, 2010

The two party system must go

I am a big believer in ideas. That is to say, I believe the ideas people choose to accept in the present profoundly influence how we live in the future. This is what The Road to Serfdom was all about: it traced the influence of ideas on society in Germany as a warning to Great Britain at a time when things looked quite bleak. The book itself influenced future generations after it was written; Ronald Reagan, for instance, listed Hayek as one of his greatest influences (see the Wikipedia article on Hayek), and this in turn greatly shaped American politics. Ideas have consequences for the future of society, and it follows that if we care about our future, we must be concerned with whether or not good ideas are allowed to flourish in the world we live in.

It is important to approach this question with both humility and critical reflection. Our temptation is always to assume that good ideas can always come about merely through personal struggle to invent them. What we must admit is that the institutions we have either inherited or created shape the way we think and have a large part in determining how our ideas are allowed to evolve. To fail to recognize this would not only be a failure to acknowledge our own limitations but also a lack of basic understanding of the forces which shape our lives.

One of the most harmful institutions to the development of political ideas in this country is the American two-party system. Not only does it reduce politics to a back-and-forth motion of power, essentially creating an inefficient duopoly of government, but it has shaped our conception of political ideology in ways that limit our ability to think about issues. We put ideas on a spectrum from "conservative" to "liberal," with the Republican and Democratic parties as reference points. All of our major political issues are now measured according to this spectrum, regardless of how enlightening such a measurement might be. No matter how intelligent or independent of a thinker you may be, you cannot avoid associating being pro-life, opposing homosexual marriage, opposing gun control, and supporting lower taxes all with being "conservative," while being an environmentalist, opposing the war in Iraq, being pro-choice, and supporting socialized health care with being "liberal." Regardless of how much or how very little these issues have to do with one another, we have all been trained by the society we live in to place a person on the Left-Right spectrum based on their views on each of these issues.

There are many problems with this. For one thing, since the two parties are the reference points, the words "conservative" and "liberal" themselves have come to lose virtually all the meaning they once had. Once upon a time, "conservative" meant simply one who resisted the tides of change in whatever era he lived. This may describe a great number of Republicans and those who would call themselves conservative, but it is also very misleading, as many movements within the Republican party are actively seeking particular kinds of change (especially in the realm of foreign policy, as one can see by examining the Bush presidency). The meaning of the term "liberal" has been changed perhaps even more profoundly. Once the term was used to describe a belief in limited government intervention in the private sphere, laissez-faire capitalism, and the Rule of Law. Now the term is used to describe in many ways precisely the opposite: a belief in the Welfare State and a desire for more government intervention to improve our lives. The only similarity between the "progressive" ideology and classical liberalism is in the belief, still persistent on the Left, that people should be allowed to think or do as they please with their own private affairs.

The more crucial problem is in the utter inconsistency this creates. Indeed, both "conservative" and "liberals" argue emphatically for personal freedom, yet neither side has a coherent idea of what that means. On the one hand, we have "conservatives" arguing that our freedom is violated unless we have lower taxes for the rich, the right to bear arms, and prayer in schools. Yet the economic and religious freedoms for which they clamor does not translate into a more open immigration policy, nor will they tolerate the government acknowledging same-sex couples; and perhaps most disturbingly, they are willing to tolerate the government's unlimited encroachment on our privacy at its own discretion in the name of the "War on Terror." On the other hand, we have "liberals" arguing that the government ought to directly intervene in a whole host of economic decisions, including which health insurance we are allowed to purchase, which food products are allowed to be sold (here's a nice example from this week), or which corporations ought to be bailed out during a recession; they encourage trillions upon trillions of dollars to be spent each year on promoting the Welfare State, they insist on pouring more money into a horrendously inefficient education system, and they seem to think all social ills can be cured by increasing taxes on the rich. Yet they are unable to imagine the government infringing on the fundamental right of a woman to abort her baby.

Many Americans are as frustrated with this false Left-Right spectrum as I am. They wonder, why should a capitalist be against gay marriage? Or why shouldn't someone in favor of government welfare programs be against abortion? Or why can't someone who supports the war in Iraq also be an environmentalist? In reaction to what they see as a sharp "polarization" in politics, many will label themselves "moderate," taking what they see as bits and pieces from the Right and from the Left, as they see fit to correspond to how they view the world. This response is natural, and yet it is shaped by our established political institutions just as thoroughly as the views of "conservatives" and "liberals." It accepts the spectrum and seeks to put itself in the middle of that spectrum. It is presumed that not being too far on either side of the spectrum is safer and more rational. This belief is bolstered by the general feeling that all this bickering and arguing in politics is unhealthy. It is believed that if we could just stop being so extreme, come to the middle, and work together, then we'd really get somewhere.

The problem with this view is that it accepts the prevailing conceptualization of our political life as a battle between two sides. The only contribution which a "moderate" can make to such a system is to make it a little more civilized, like a referee in a boxing ring. Although this is a valuable contribution, it is not ultimately what our society needs. What we need is a rich flourishing of ideas which can be made to develop into coherent systems of political thought. We need more than just a two-sided spectrum of ideology. Our current system all but stifles our political imagination by forcing us to associate ideas with one another in a ridiculously arbitrary way. If we wish to build a society on principles, this is not the way forward.

What must change in order to solve this problem? One thing I truly believe must change is our system of electing representatives in Congress. Our two-party system thrives on the "winner-take-all" model of electing representatives. It is a simple matter of risk calculation. Suppose there were only one major political party. In a functioning democracy, it would not be extremely difficult to drum up support for an opposition party. All one would need to do to establish a presence in the government would be to defeat the incumbent party in a sufficient number of elections. Simply appeal to whatever dissatisfaction the people may have with the incumbents, and you have a good shot at winning. Thus the risk of forming a second party to challenge the first is fairly low. And this corresponds more or less to what actually happens in politics these days: just an endless pendulum swing between Republicans and Democrats.

When we turn to calculate the risk of joining a third party, we find a considerably different situation. In order to win a single seat in Congress, a challenger must get the most votes out of all the candidates in the race. In order to gain a significant number of seats in Congress to make any difference, a third party must actually be able to do this in a large number of races. It would take a massive coordinated effort to challenge both of the incumbent parties, and only a full victory would pay off. If the party failed to win more than a couple of seats, then all of the large amount of resources devoted to such an ambitious campaign would be for nothing. The risk is very high.

The problem lies in trying to convince people from the two incumbent parties to join the third party. We can safely assume that the two incumbent parties will command roughly the same amount of voting strength; if there were any significant difference, one of the two parties would have been replaced by a more serious challenger. That means it is impossible for the third party to have any serious chance of defeating the other two parties without drawing supporters away from both parties. Members of the two incumbent parties face a prisoner's dilemma: for instance, if a Republican chooses to join the Libertarian party, he runs the risk of merely allowing the Democrats more voting strength in proportion to both Republicans and Libertarians. Since he might rather stay with the Republicans than let the Democrats win, he will not likely switch parties, even though the third party may be more in line with his principles. This will be just as true of the more libertarian Democrat, since he will have no reason to suspect that the Republicans will flock en masse to the Libertarian party; he will assume they have calculated their own risk just as he has, and so none of them will switch parties.

The whole reason why the risk is so much higher for joining a third party is that we have a winner-take-all system: a politician has to win the largest number of votes to win the seat, and all the other politicians in the race get nothing. A system of this kind will naturally tend toward having only two candidates; and even if there are more than two, there will still be only two "serious" candidates. As many notable exceptions as there are in our system, this is generally the way things work in the United States. This is what needs to change.

I think a reasonable system would be one of proportional representation. I am not quite sure of the details, but I would suggest, in our elections for the House of Representatives, we cast our votes for political parties in order of preference, rather than casting a single ballot for an individual. Then each political party would earn a number of seats in the House in proportion to the number of votes they received. I think this would only need to be done for the House of Representatives; Senators could be elected as they already are. (Presidential elections also need not be changed.) I would limit elections by state, and simply do away with voting districts within states. Thus a representative would no longer represent a single district within a state, but all the state's representatives would represent the whole state.

I don't think it's totally unreasonable to say that, were this change put in place, the two-party system would collapse almost overnight. Immediately I can imagine many more political parties campaigning among the people, drumming up support from like-minded individuals who badly wish to make their vote actually count for something. When the next election of representatives came up, it is highly likely that other parties besides Republicans and Democrats would gain significant numbers in the House. This would have consequences for Senate and Presidential elections, as well. Once other political parties were actually able to gain credibility by their presence in the House, they would be able to gain enough support for a serious run at Senate positions and even the Presidency.

It is reasonable to ask at this point why we would want to vote for political parties and not individuals. It is the individual and his own record that counts, isn't it? We want someone we know and can personally interact with, not some ideologue who cares very little about the place he represents. Indeed, aren't political parties exactly the problem? Why would we want to exacerbate the problem by allowing more political parties to invade our system?

These are very important considerations. However, we must acknowledge that it is simply a fact that we vote largely for parties, and not strictly for individuals. Partisanship is an inevitability in Congress as we know it. Any individual whom we elect, no matter how well-meaning he may be, will be forced to play ball with his party leaders. Even if a politician can get elected without the support of one of the two major parties, he must then vote on bills once he gets into office; the nature of those bills is going to be determined by the two major parties, and on each bill he will have no choice but to serve one party's interests or another. Like it or not, the two major parties are the ones running the show. No matter how decent or honest or sincere your particular representative is, he is no match by himself for the political duopoly in Washington.

It is also worth considering that the point of government is not to look out for the particular interests of certain constituents, although that is the system we have grown used to. We believe a Congressman to be good at his job when he can make deals in Congress that will bring some special benefit to his own district or state. What we need to consider is whether this is in line with the principles of liberty or good government. Does one district deserve to reap special benefits from having an especially powerful Congressman in office? Should not our representatives in Congress be those who value the good of the whole country?

Most importantly, we must not forget why the two-party system is a problem in the first place. It is not merely that we would like to have more options; it is so that good ideas can flourish. If our political institutions were modified so that they more naturally allowed for a wider range of political parties, then our ideas would evolve accordingly. We would think more often about how to construct principled systems of political thought. We would make conscious attempts to be more consistent in how we apply our notions of freedom, equality, and justice. In short, we would regain our political imagination.

I hasten to add that our ideas can never be perfect. I do not presume that we can ever find a fully coherent system of political ideas. It is not because there is some political party out there who can solve all of our problems that I desire a change in the current system. Quite the opposite. It is because no political party can ever have all the answers that a change is needed. Duopoly is next in line to monopoly, and the spirit of monopoly is always oppressive, always inefficient. What we need is a system that allows more freedom of thought, more competition in the marketplace of ideas, and therefore more chances for future improvement.

I can't foresee this kind of change going into effect any time soon, but I believe it's worth thinking about how we might change things for the better. For the sake of America's freedom and prosperity, I say that the two party system must go.

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